A Little Secret: On Ordinary Wisdom and Common Grace
A sermon preached By The Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
Sunday, December 13th, 2015
At Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, Minnesota
My father loved to dispense folksy wisdom. You know the type – “A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush” or “the early bird catches the worm” or “you never look a gift horse in the mouth.” And, you always knew when this wisdom was coming because he would preface it with the phrase “Let me tell you a little secret…” Of course the humor to our family was always that what he said was no secret at all – it was in fact common knowledge and ordinary wisdom.
When I got into high school I was given greater freedom and wider boundaries. I was even given the keys to the family boat. And, yes, just as Uncle Ben has reminded generations of Spiderman fans, my father was quick to remind me – “With great power comes great responsibility.” I tried not to roll my eyes. C’mon dad, Spiderman? Really?
When I did finally take our skiff out on the ocean for the first time, my father pulled me aside. “Let me tell you a little secret…” he said “If you get ‘er up on half throttle, she can really scoot.” The boat, a simple 16 foot aluminum skiff with a 50 horse engine, was no rare or particularly powerful marine vessel. He just wanted to be sure I wouldn’t tax the engine. He wanted to ensure I knew that there was no reason to waste gas, or to joy ride, or to go any faster than would get me safely from point A to point B.
Of course wrapped up in his advice was more than practicality and common sense – he was always trying to carefully and lovingly communicate the simple wisdom of the moral life, the good life, to me and to any who were in his charge. He cared about thrift and simplicity. He wanted me to care for the things I had been given care of – the tools in my hands and the ground beneath my feet. He wanted me to be humble and honest and kind. Simple things. Ordinary things.
Such is the kind of moral wisdom given to us today in the Gospel of Luke. John has been preaching and prophecying about the coming of the messiah and the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. John exhorts the crowds to bear fruit – for the coming of God among us will be like a purifying fire ready to separate the dross of our lives, to burn away that which is self made and not of God. And, as the baptizer shouts his warnings and calls his hearers to fruitful living, they ask the obvious – what should we do?
Who among us, what people of faith have not wondered quietly on their beds or aloud to other faithful travelers, what should we do? Especially of late, as the world has seemed to grow particularly dark, we might wonder how to respond. As one of my good friends asked this week, what should we do about guns and violence, about terrorism and oppression in the world. What should we do when refugees seek shelter at our doors, or when we feel we cannot always trust politicians and law enforcement to have our best interests at heart? What should we do? (Eric Barretto, ON Scripture 12/7/15 – http://www.odysseynetworks.org/on-scripture-the-bible/ordinary-acts-of-grace-luke-37-18/)
John the Baptist is quick in his response, and for the firebrand that he is his advice is not, to our surprise, an all out call for transformation. Rather, his advice comes in the form of ordinary grace – a wisdom and morality that is simultaneously simple yet profound. To the tax collectors, ones despised by society as criminals and extortionists, he simply asks that they do their jobs, that they collect the taxes owed the state, but to take no more. To the soldiers, feared for their abuses of power, he advises only that they keep on soldiering, warning them to not use their swords and strength for unjust gain. He may as well have been quoting Spiderman – with great power comes great responsibility.
Sometimes when I come to church, I can feel as though my faith is asking me to change everything – I can feel as though God is not pleased with anything less than the complete and total transformation of my life and the world around me. Yet, here in this season of Advent, in this season of preparation and waiting, it would appear that our faith is calling us to the ordinary work of goodness and simple acts of grace. To the teacher John might simply say – keep teaching, but try to treat each of these children as you would your own, seeing them as Christ sees them, as beloved and gifted of God. To the banker, keep banking, but remember that forgiveness is an economic word, not just a spiritual one. To the doctor, keep doctoring, but never forget that the care of lives is not a luxury to be afforded only by the few. To the leaders of churches, of cities and communities and great nations, remember that in order to lead you must first be led. Love God. Love your neighbors. Treat others as you would want them to treat you. Simple wisdom. Ordinary grace.
Since the printing in the 80s of the book All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, the title has become something of a cliché. Yet, as the author contends, there is uncommon wisdom in the ordinary and simplest truths of life. So it is that a group of school children across Canada are teaching the world what ordinary grace looks like. When politicians and pundits in our own country have dithered over what to do about the Syrian refugee crisis, fomenting anti-muslim sentiment and frothing about terrorism, our neighbor to the north began a process of welcoming these tired and poor and huddled families cast adrift from their homes by the horrors of war. And, as they welcomed them, the NGO World Vision created a simple video of children from all over Canada expressing their gratitude and heartfelt acceptance of these their newest neighbors in little snippets of grace. “Bienvenieu au Canada! Welcome to Canada.” From the lips of small children. “I hope you’ll like it here.” “I hope you’ll be my neighbor.” “We’ll see you in school.”
Simple, ordinary acts of grace. Welcome and hospitality are not radical and do not require us to transform anything more than the fear in our hearts, fear that would exclude and deny the goodness of God in the lives of others. There is nothing particularly heroic in welcoming these strangers. The simple act of hospitality is or ought to be the baseline in our lives of faith. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Visit those sick and in prison. Welcome the stranger. These things are the basics of our faith, and yet they hold within them the power to transform our lives and the life of the world.
One of my favorite authors, the great essayist and poet and novelist Wendell Berry argues that attending to the ordinary, to the ground beneath our feet and the tools in our hands, that these things such as thrift and common decency and hospitality, are the most transformative radical acts a person has to confront a world often darkened by greed and indifference. He writes in one of my favorite poems:
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it…
…Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years…
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts…
(Wendell Berry, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front)
Friends, let me tell you a little secret, in the face of that which vexes us, that which seems most dark, here’s what we should do.
Love God. Love our neighbors. Welcome the stranger. Pray with and for others and ourselves. Practice ordinary things like kindness and humility and grace. Our lives and the world we love will be transformed.